Some 400 students from more than a dozen middle schools in Compton gathered at the CSUDH campus on February 27 for the second annual Girls in STEAM Day. This year’s event came together through the collaborative efforts of GEAR UP Compton, CSUDH, and the University of California Irvine.
GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is a federal grant program with projects across the United States. It works with local school districts, community-based organizations, colleges, and universities to build long-term relationships with students starting in middle school.
Girls in STEAM Day is one of several programs held each year by GEAR UP that seeks to improve educational achievement, college attendance, and graduation rates for first-generation, low-income, and underserved students. STEAM workshops give students early exposure to educational and career options in the sciences, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics.
Maximiliano Rosas, director of GEAR UP Compton, says what differentiates this program from others is that it presents numerous touchpoints over several years to give students every opportunity to achieve academic success.
“We’ve been working with all the students that attended this year’s Girls in STEAM Day for the last two years, and we’ll continue to do so right up until the time they enter college,” Rosas says.
He adds that Girls in STEAM events give young women a chance to consider future careers in fields that they might never have thought possible. “Not only do they get to see first-hand what a career in STEAM might look like, but they can meet people who look like them in those spaces.”
Michelle Digman, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California Irvine, says that making science more accessible to young women is crucial to instilling confidence that no academic discipline is beyond their reach.
“I think there are a lot of women out there who feel, like I did, that they don’t have the support to pursue a career in science or engineering,” says Digman, who presented a workshop on Biophysics and microscopy. “Showing them there are scientists that look just like they do and come from just the same backgrounds is what makes the Girls in STEAM program so effective and so important.”
Cynthia Villanueva, a lecturer in the Modern Languages and Women’s Studies departments at CSUDH, says representation was a key part of her workshop as well. “I grew up in Inglewood. My parents came from rural Mexico and only finished grade school. They were excellent parents, but I couldn’t rely on them to navigate the educational system.”
Villanueva says that making young students feel that they’re welcome on a college campus is a critical first step to getting them to consider post-secondary education. “The Girls in STEAM Day is a wonderful bridge for making young students see that higher education is attainable for them.”
Abigail Lopez-Byrd is founder and executive director of Color Compton, an organization that builds community relationships among people of color by exploring identity and using art as a form of communication. In her morning address to attendees, she talked about growing up in Compton and feeling like the only way to succeed was to get out.
“I see young people trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. You don’t have to leave to figure that out. There’s so much right here in Compton to be proud of, so many creative and cultural assets. We just need to do a better job of explaining this to young people,” says Lopez-Byrd.
Rosas of GEAR UP Compton says the group has more events planned throughout the year. Their students also participate in the Toro Summer Academy, a program that busses attendees in from Compton, Hawthorne, and across Los Angeles to spend six weeks taking courses at CSUDH.
“The beauty of GEAR UP has always been the relationships we forge over many years with these young students and their parents,” Rosas says. “They come at you with all kinds of questions, and they know they can trust you when they need answers.”